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Biotechnology and energy

Date: 23.3.2009 

Fortunately, the competency of biotechnology does not contain the evaluation of how well are we able to make rain and wind to do our bidding by adding FAME to oil, or whether the process of yielding 2.8 tons of rapeseed from a hectar would not, in the end, produce more carbon dioxide than if we use pure oil to feed our engines and make the land into grazing meadow instead of planting rapeseed. This could be achieved by using the agricultural and industrial standard and a bit of measuring the production of carbon dioxide from the agricultural soil. However, the biotechnology can offer ways of handling the waste by transforming it into energy source, can help to achieve such agrotechnical processes that consume the least energy and to develop microorganisms capable of transforming solar energy into other useful forms at the highest efficiency.

The nature-friendly sources of energy already exist - many agricultural companies produce biogas that they immediately utilize. It is a matter of common sense to not use high-quality silage corn for the biogas production, but using the common bio-waste instead. During my stay in Netherlands, I was impressed by the "rumen biotechnology". As it is known, the cows contribute to the greenhouse effects by producing methane. The gas is produced by a community of protozoa and anaerobic bacteria residing in their rumen. The scientist planted such a community into a fermenting machine that processed the stuff that stinks in our trash containers under the name of "mixed waste". They even added the paper waste there. The result was a biogas consisting of methane, a small amount of carbon dioxide and a bit of hydrogen. There is also a perspective research of processing sawdust and crushed wood pulp waste in this way.

Even the energy savings by agrotechnics is not a new concept. The transgenic plants generally reduce the total number of using the machines. The introduction of herbicide-resistant plants allows to reduce (sometimes even to omit entirely) the field plowing. This means oil saving, as well as reducing humus oxidation. Therefore, the structure of the soil is improved, and above all, the amount of produced carbon dioxide is reduced. The introduction of Bt plants instead of apply insecticides means further energy savings, because the chemical industry that produces the insecticides is a great energy consumer and greenhouse gas producer. A similar effect will be achieved by the realization of the project focused on granting the the ability of binding atmospheric nitrogen to other plants than legumes.

A great potential is hidden in plants that do not serve neither as food nor fodder that are planted only as an energy source. They provide the energy in the form of biomass, i.e. their bodies consisting of cellulose, starch, proteins and other substances. A great example is a species of sour dock whose cultivation is currently tested, another potential energetic plant is the giant knotweed. One should mention also the algae cultivation in constant water flow environments - examples can be seen in Třeboň (Opatovický mlýn) or at the castle in Nové Hrady.

Another important group are the fat-depositing plants, that can be used as a source of fuel. The example of this group could be the jatropha. The Jatropha curcas shrub, also called Barbados nut, belonging to the Euphorbiceae (spurge) family, grows primarily in the subtropical region, but it can be accommodated to colder climate. Until now, the shrub was almost unknown top people here, save for the custodians of botanic gardens. The people of Central America, Africa and Asia used to make candles and laxatives out of the plant.
Both groups of plants hold a great biotechnological potential because of the fact that they avoided the interest of the cultivators. They are an untouched page. The genome changes intended for them should be approved only considering the ecological criteria, the food & beverage criteria approval, that is the most expensive, would not be needed. Their implementation would also exclude the possibility of their incidental or "incidental" confusion for food product, a risk that is omnipresent in industrial variants of food plants. In this area, a genetically modified species of fast-growing poplar was developed in Belgium.

After that comes the biotechnological "hi-tech" - the production of oil-like hydrocarbons or even hydrogen by monocellular algae industrially. That would mean the conversion of solar energy to chemical energy by maximally simplified production procedure. Much is expected from a recent project focused on monitoring the sea life in the most possible detail. Great surprises could be awaited here.

All these possibilities have one thing in common: the interest in them (that is measurable by the amount of financial support offered) is proportional to prices of oil. A bit milder effect can be seen in the area of waste disposal, because the waste must be taken care of anyway. The least popular are the ways that involve the need of ploughland. Especially in the last year, the worldwide deficit of food has manifested in its rising prices. The advice of the world organizations like FAO or OSN is to utilize the available ploughland (the amount of what is decreasing) for production of as much food as possible. Only Europe, wrestling with obesity, can afford romantic small agricultural enterprises with low area yield. No wonder that we hear, e.g. from OECD, voices that warn against exaggeration of planting energetic plants. Also, concerning the nature and biodiversity protection, it is not desirable for each free space to fall victim to sour dock or giant knotwood growth. After all, both of these are imported species. Maybe that poplar would be acceptable (least unwanted), at places specifically chosen for it.

The algae cultivation has an indubitable future, especially in areas that are sunny enough. However, the industrial algae production suffers from lack of experience - the yeast and bacteria are long "tamed" by classical biotechnology, but handling the algae is just at its beginning. On the other hand, we have a far wider arsenal of tools usable to modify the algae to fit our needs, just like our ancestors did with wheat, corn and potato.

In any case, the biological utilization of solar energy looks to be easier, more natural and more aesthetic than more of the suggested purely technical processes.

Gate2Biotech redaction




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